Managing Goals in Health Startups

Feb 18, 2020

Author: Brian Dougherty, Jumpstart Foundry Chief Operations Officer

One of the biggest challenges of transforming a health startup into a successful business is focus.

Ensuring that employees are focusing time and energy on the right objectives and milestones becomes exponentially more difficult with each new employee added to the team or business goal added to the strategic road map. Throw in the fast-paced nature of health-startup culture, new business opportunities surfacing on a seemingly daily basis, tight deadlines, differing employee perspectives and reduced opportunities for direct meaningful communication across the team, and it can be very difficult to ensure your company is prioritizing work correctly. As a health startup founder, how do you keep everyone on the same page?

Enter goal management frameworks.

Goal management frameworks allow organizations to clearly define the goals of the organization and the milestones that will move the company closer to their achievement. Jumpstart Foundry uses a framework known as Objectives & Key Results, “OKRs” for short. Championed by venture capitalist John Doerr, OKRs have been attributed as the key to the success of many major organizations, such as Google (now Alphabet) and Intel. While books have literally been written on OKRs (I’d encourage you to pick up a copy of John Doerr’s “Measure What Matters”), the main point of the framework is to ensure vertical and horizontal alignment throughout your organization through well defined stretch-goals (Objectives) and that the progress of those goals is tracked via meaningful, clearly-defined deliverables with established deadlines.

Benefits of OKRs:

Fail faster.

Ever since it came into fashion with Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, failing fast is a virtue that organizations, especially in the formative stage, should strive for. Universally understood objectives coupled with concretely defined deliverables leave no room for ambiguity, forcing organizations to realize and accept that the current strategy may not be optimal and that a pivot a is necessary.

Indirect collaboration.

Organizational growth makes communication difficult and ensuring that multiple team members across multiple departments are all working towards the same objective is hard.  Due to the horizontal alignment enforced by OKR’s, I’ve observed multiple instances where members of teams in separate departments advance a common objective despite little or no direct collaboration between the teams.

Increased job satisfaction.

A lack of understanding of how day to day activities fit into the overall company objectives leads to dissatisfaction and burnout. OKR’s, when implemented properly, clearly defines how individual employee or team objectives drive the organizational mission forward at the highest level.

Find out who’s on board.

Health startups are a team sport. OKRs force clear definition of team, department and organizational priorities and the means with which to track their execution. If an individual, team or department decides to go rogue and focus on other activities, the disconnect becomes apparent early and often, allowing management to take corrective action and get everything back on track.

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Possible costs and challenges of OKRs:

Universal buy-in.

The vertical and horizontal alignment provided by OKRs requires all buy-in from top to bottom of the organization. Implementing the program at the department or team level can be helpful, but you’ll always end up getting knocked off balance when priorities are asserted by external groups not bought into the process. Goal alignment across the entire organization is key to preventing OKR priorities from being preempted and focus lost.

Constant attention.

You get out of OKRs what you put in. Defining strong OKRs requires considerable time and thought from both management and employees. Once the OKRs are defined, the OKRs should be promoted constantly and consistently so awareness is maintained.  At the end of the quarter, OKRs must be reviewed and new OKRs generated. All of this requires dedication, focus and effort of your team. If you’re not willing to go all-in, a half-hearted implementation can add more overhead and confusion than benefit.

Leaving the comfort zone.

The “stretch-goal” concept required by OKRs can be difficult for more conservative individuals to embrace. Also, in heavily siloed organizations, the transparency of progress can make people nervous. While it’s always better to revel in the light than hide in ambiguity, pathological organizations can be hesitant to embrace the framework, thereby sabotaging its chance for success.

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Points to remember:

OKRs are not a replacement for project management.

Goal management frameworks are great for defining where you want to go and even milestones for getting there, but project management is still critical for execution. Project management ensures that proper resources are allocated to initiatives and ensuring the initiatives stay on track. OKRs are great for making a plan, but without someone filing the role of PM that plan will be at risk.

Not considering day-to-day workload.

When creating OKRs it can be easy to fall in the trap in which only strategic initiatives are considered, ignoring day-to-day tactical operations. As a result, the resource availability for OKRs is overestimated. OKRs must and should consider tactical objectives as well or employees will be left wondering if OKRs or tactical duties should take priority.

Ignoring detractors.

OKRs are a great tool to provide strategic alignment across your organization and get all employees on the same page. However, as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. If there are employees that ignore OKRs in favor of priorities and intiatives they personally set, the implementation will not be successful. While OKRs are excellent at bringing these detractors into the light, management must be willing to take action to address them or the implementation will fail.

Having applied this framework at multiple organizations, I can confidently say that when implemented correctly, the benefits provided by adopting OKRs far outweigh the costs and can go a long way to ensuring your health startup maintains focus.

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